Attending Conferences with a Food Allergy

Speaker at Business Conference and Presentation.
There are ways to attend conferences safely with food allergies

While completing my master’s degree at Western University, I had the privilege of presenting my research at a number of conferences. Through my work with Food Allergy Canada, I have also attended a few conferences, both as a general attendee and as a moderator/facilitator. Living with a peanut/tree nut allergy, I have to prepare for conferences with a little more planning than the classic presentation prep. I find it useful to view the conference agenda ahead of time. This allows me to figure out when food can realistically be consumed.

In most cases, the conference admission will include some sort of lunch or, if you’re lucky, a full dinner. If this is the case, I make a point of contacting the conference organizer to speak about my food allergy and discuss what a safe meal entails. I think that trying to explain the severity of my food allergy through emails is risky because emails can get lost in the ‘spam’ folder, read but not processed, or they can simply be overlooked. For this reason, I think a phone call is always the best option for meal preparations. Here’s a couple examples of recent conferences I attended and what I did:

I recently attended a food allergy conference in Washington, DC, where I was surrounded by teens and parents living with food allergies. There was no food permitted in any of the meeting or conference rooms. This kept the conference very safe for the countless people with food allergies present. In fact, the only food I saw at the venue was sample packs of snacks from a vendor who made a point of asking what your food allergy was before offering any samples. The lunch time slot was extended to just over an hour to allow attendees to leave the venue, find allergen-safe food, and journey back to the venue in time for the afternoon sessions. This is an example of a well-planned, allergy-friendly conference.

Another conference I attended was less allergy-friendly but still very accommodating. It was a conference held in Niagara Falls for the Canadian Association on Gerontology. With over 1000 people in attendance, I knew I would need to plan my meals extra carefully. I contacted the conference organizer and had a special meal made for each of my lunches, which was great! However, when I picked up my lunch, I quickly realized that all of my friends had chocolate bars with nuts in them AND little packs of trail mix! When I realized this, I had to be extra diligent with my hand washing and careful not to eat anything that may have come in contact with the tables, or really anything at the conference. This is an example of a well-planned, but less allergy-friendly conference.

In most cases, it is likely unrealistic to request a complete ban of your allergen at a conference. That doesn’t mean you can’t ask. If you ask and the organizer says no, you’re in no worst condition. At least you tried! In any case, remember to plan your meals ahead of time. If the organizers cannot accommodate your allergy, simply make them aware of your allergy and pack food that you know is safe. Then wash your hands before eating. Lastly, always bring your auto-injector with you to the conference and ensure it is with you at all times. This is important in the case of an emergency.

After thoroughly preparing for all food possibilities at the conference, remember to prepare your slides, dress sharp, and have some fun! Happy conferencing everyone!

Nepal, Austria, Greece & Keeping on Track with Food Allergies

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This spring was quite busy to say the least. As I prepared to finish my Bachelor of Nursing Science degree, write my nursing licensing exam, and begin the search to find a “real person” job, I also found myself in the midst of planning a volunteer trip to Nepal for the beginning of June. I’ve volunteered abroad before and am quite interested in global health so I was very committed to the idea of taking some time to go on a volunteer trip before taking on ‘adult responsibilities’ in the ‘adult world’. Before I knew it, after I organized my trip to Nepal, I also tacked on a week of visiting relatives in Austria and then arranged a one week tour of the Greek Islands. Could you say that I had a bit of a panic attack thinking that after I got my first nursing job I wouldn’t have any free time to travel again? Absolutely. Was this a slight overreaction? Perhaps…but no regrets, right? Anyway, along with the challenges of organizing three very different trips there is always the challenge of taking appropriate precautions with regards to food allergies.

In the weeks leading up to my trip departure I did basic research on the cultures I would be visiting and what sorts of food I would likely encounter. In Nepal, their cuisine takes influence from India as well as China with their main meal being Dhaal Bhat (rice &lentils). With my allergies being to wheat, eggs, and nuts I was a-ok with that. I was familiar with Austrian cuisine since my grandparents would always cook Austrian meals growing up. That being said, before even booking my trip I knew their love of schnitzel doesn’t work with my wheat allergy and sausage would also pose a challenge. What I did have going my way was the fact that, when in Austria, I would be meeting with my cousins who luckily could speak German and would be able to help me find suitable food options.

Finally, the mediterranean diet would for the most part agree with my food limitations of wheat, eggs, and nuts. But it would still pose some risks in terms of cross contamination. After getting an idea of what foods I would encounter while travelling, I also did the routine task of contacting airlines and informing them of my food allergies. I will admit I did not pick my airline based on which ones were allergy friendly. Instead I looked at which ones offered the best deal. I then had to find out that some airlines such as Turkish Airlines did not accommodate allergies in anyway such as even offering a gluten free meal option to passengers. This at least tipped me off to be well prepared with snacks for my air travels.

Other preparations before I left for my trip included making sure that I had not only one auto-injector to take with me but in fact several stored in different bags so I had backup options in case one needed to be used or perhaps accidentally got lost. I also packed anti-histamine medication which I use for less severe allergic reactions and a few inhalers in case I had one of my in-frequent asthma attacks. Having travelled by myself to other countries before, something that I always like to bring is allergy cards. You can order these online through companies like Select Wisely.

These allergy cards are neat because you can have these pocket- sized laminate cards made to state your allergies as well as other phrases such as ‘I am having an allergic reaction please get me to an English speaking hospital’ in virtually any language. I naturally ordered a fresh batch of these allergy cards in Nepali, German and Greek. But the roadblock I encountered was that, although I ordered these cards five weeks before my departure date, because they were coming from the USA they didn’t actually arrive before I left. The real kicker is I flew out on a Saturday and my allergy cards arrived the Monday after! Oh well, c’est la vie! I found that a useful and convenient alternative for communicating my allergies was downloading the google translate app on my smartphone. By downloading this app I could use very simple language to communicate my food allergies and inability to eat certain foods and type this into the app. I then saved the phrases that were produced so I could easily bring them up when ordering food.

So after months of planning and prepping for my trip it was finally time for departure. For my time In Nepal, I was living in Kathmandu and the work I was doing involved volunteering with the largest women’s health NGO in Nepal. I got connected with this group through a volunteer liaison organization that provided room and board for those coming to the country to volunteer. This provided some obvious perks such as not having to find my own accommodations as well we had all of our meals provided for us by an in-house cook. I knew in Nepal it was customary to eat rice at most meals (usually at least two meals a day), but when I had my food allergies explained to the cook I could see her eyes bulge as I am sure she began to ask herself ‘what else can I make for this girl besides rice, rice, and more rice!?’

I will admit.. I ate ALOT of rice when I was in Nepal. Breakfast usually contained of fruit and some form of rice, rice donuts, fried potatoes or even fried rice noodles (I believe the cook was trying to get creative as I could not eat things like toast or egg). Lunch typically involved fried rice prepared with some fried vegetables and potatoes or beaten rice (another form of rice quite popular in nepal…usually fried). Dinner again usually consisted of dhal bhat (rice and lentils) with curried vegetables. If you want a true picture of Nepali cuisine don’t just use my blog as a source they DO eat food beyond rice including their famous stuffed dumplings called Mo-Mos as well as various noodle dishes but as I definitely experienced rice is their main staple grain.

While my day-to-day meals were always allergy friendly I did eat out from time to time and had to be careful with ordering my meals. It was tempting not to eat out in Nepal since for $3-4 american could get you a LARGE meal of your choosing. In terms of ordering safe, I always try to stick to foods I can identify as likely being allergen free and then reconfirming when placing my order. In Nepal this involved ordering a lot of curries and traditional plates of dhal bhat that came with curried vegetables, pickled vegetables, your choice of meat as well as potatoes. It was here that I would bring out my phone and show waiters my pre-typed allergy message. The organization I worked for was stationed in Kathmandu (the capital of Nepal) and I was surprised how many people in Nepal could speak or understand some English. That being said, allergies are next to non-existent in Nepal so while some educated Nepali people know of allergies this is not something they encounter regularly like we do in North America. Therefore it was important to always re-evaluate the waiters understanding while placing my order and even confirming again when the order arrived.

While I found it easy to avoid food allergens when eating out, I actually found it harder to avoid allergens at my place of work. The volunteer organization that I worked for had its main branch located in Kathmandu. However, due to the recent earthquakes that struck Nepal, we were going out to areas around the Kathmandu valley and working in health camps. Regardless of whether we were at the main branch or out in the field, lunch was always provided for the staff (something commonly done in many places of work in Nepal). These would be simple lunches of Mo-Mos (dumplings) or packets of dried noodles which are extremely popular in Nepal (yes, exactly like the ones you ate in grade school). That being said most days I could not eat any of these lunches and instead brought my own.

Some of the staff did not speak English so, when I politely declined their offer to have some of their food, it was hard not to feel completely rude. After a couple of these offers, during which I received strange looks for not wanting their food, I brought my phone with me to work so I could communicate to everyone that it wasn’t that I didn’t like their food but literally could not eat it. They definitely understood and even on my last day of work made me a special lunch with only foods I could eat— just one small example of the incredible kindness and hospitality of the Nepali people. I am thankful to say I did not have an allergic reaction while in Nepal and in fact was more successful at avoiding my food allergens than avoiding drinking untreated well water…but that is an accident and a story for another time!

After the trip of a lifetime to Nepal, I flew to Austria for a week. Here I will admit I was fortunate that, for about 2/3 of my travels, I was with cousins who could help with translating food allergies when ordering or helped with reading ingredient lists. While on my own I still didn’t find it too difficult to order food and communicate my allergies. I attribute most of this to the fact that I was in tourist centres like Vienna and Salzburg where it wasn’t hard to find those who spoke English. When it came to buying food at stores, when in doubt, I simply would look for a friendly stranger who spoke English and could help me translate what the package said. I had the google translate app ready to go but found I didn’t need to use it often at all. Again I was fortunate that Austria proved to be a trip that was reaction free!

For my final stop in Greece, I found it slightly more difficult to order food than in Austria. I obviously didn’t have family right there to translate, as well I found English wasn’t quite as commonly spoken here. That being said, while travelling the Greek islands, many of the cities are tourist hot beds so you will find someone working in a restaurant that does speak some English.

Another thing I found was that sometimes the personality of servers in Greece were such that, depending their mood or how busy they were or maybe just how they were feeling that day, this would dictate their promptness for allowing you to order with a ‘special request’ (i.e. a allergy safe meal). Despite this I did appreciate that they always did pay attention to my actual concerns and were very good about making alterations as necessary so I could eat safely wherever I was.

Even on my last night in Greece I was dining with some people in Athens and after having one of the best dinners of my trip the waiter/owner of the restaurant brought everyone at our table a piece of a pastry. I graciously thanked the man but explained that this was also something I could not eat. He of course understood and then came back a few minutes later asking if I could eat watermelon. After I said I could, he came back with an entire chopped up watermelon for our entire group! One of the greatest experiences of my travels had to be seeing the generosity and thoughtfulness of people are all across the world!

Yes, it can definitely be extra work and an added responsibility when travelling with food allergies. But I am a firm believer that it is not something that should hold you back from allowing you to gain life- changing experiences and travelling around the world! There are so many other things to consider and precautions to take when travelling with food allergies. While I tried to take precautions that made sense to me, feel free to comment below with tips and tricks you use to stay safe while travelling!

Caitlyn P.

How Your Parents Treated Your Allergies Then and Now: Once a Parent, Always a Parent

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I was three years old when my family found out I had a life threatening food allergy to peanuts and nuts. Now, I don’t remember much from that fateful day, but the bits and pieces I’ve gathered seem to allude to the following: I ate a cracker with peanut butter on it and immediately went into anaphylactic shock. My parents rushed me to the hospital because they had no idea what the heck was happening to me.

Afterward, the doctors broke the news to my family that I was anaphylactic to all nuts and peanuts (my life story and my family’s were sent down a very different, but interesting path). At the beginning, my parents did everything to keep me safe; and I mean everything. My saint of a mother spent hours baking everything from cakes and cookies, to ice cream and bread. There were no regulations for food safety, and few companies could guarantee a safe products free of cross-contamination. So our food options were limited. Collectively, my family and extended family decided to clear our houses of all of my allergens (and my brother’s when we figured out his allergy) to limit the chances of either of us having a reaction.

They painstakingly created one space where I could feel completely safe to eat anything found in our kitchen. On top of creating meals, snacks, and even birthday cakes for fellow classmates, my mom helped create support groups for fellow parents of children with food allergies. She also become an integral part of the organization AAIA (Allergies, Asthma Information Association) and spread the message about food allergies to our local school board (to eventually make my school nut-free before its time).

Through it all, my mom and dad did everything in their power to make me feel included in events, safe and, most importantly, normal. It can be so hard on a child’s self-esteem to grow up with a food allergy, and my family did everything in their power to both help me be comfortable with my allergen and to be vocal about informing and educating people. BUT, that did not stop her from telling anyone and everyone about my allergies, sometimes in the most pre-teen embarrassing way, or announcing to any room that would listen that we had a quote “Special Alert” – me.

Fast-forward 20 years to my adulthood. My mom is still taking time to make homemade foods for me when I visit, informing anyone who will listen about food allergies, and is still taking time to discover new and safe foods for me. My family is still my pillar of support when it comes to new or lasting issues I have with my food allergies regardless of distance between us. My food allergies have been consistent in my life and my family’s for such a long period of time that they are no longer a constant topic or issue for us. Over the years we’ve found restaurants that can accommodate, safe places to travel, and resources to make our lives easier.

My parents still choose to not keep my allergen in their home, and not to eat them even while travelling. I guess some habits never go away. And between you and me, it makes me smile every time I think about it. My mom still ever-so subtly prompts me to inform servers and chefs about my allergen before I even get a chance to sit down when eating out. She still makes me re-read ingredients after she reads them and still insist on joining me on every trip I take to the allergist. My parents have always been a beacon of love and support in my life, from allowing me to spread my wings and experience life, to helping me create values and roots to come back home to.

Arianne K.

A Guide to A Safe Halloween: An Adult with Allergies

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Halloween is just around the corner (literally today actually) and that means a weekend of costumes, candy, and fun! Regardless of who you become for Halloween, you need to keep your allergies in mind to stay safe. Here are a few tips to have a safe and happy Halloween!

  1. Candy: In the last few years it has become much more manageable to find Halloween candy that is safe when you have allergies. Specifically when it comes to peanuts and nuts, many candy companies market their products with peanut/ nut-free symbols. There are still however many brands of treats that either contain nuts or may contain traces. Therefore its is very important to check the label every time. If a product does not have a label on the individual items, your safest option is to avoid it (just say no).
  1. Halloween Parties: Parties with friends can be a great way to spend your Halloween night. Talking to the host before the party can make your night easier by ensuring the environment will be safe for you. Bringing your own food can also make you feel more comfortable and take some worry away so you can have a relaxing night.
  1. Bars: If you’re making a trip to a bar for Halloween, keep in mind those ‘common sense’ rules of drinking. Knowing your limit is extra important when you have food allergies. When you loose control you can make decisions that you normally would not regarding consuming foods or beverages that may not be safe. When your at a bar, you have to be careful when ordering mixed drinks considering that various places will use different mixes (some of which may contain your allergens).

Regardless of where you go, always remember to bring your auto-injector with you. Halloween can be a blast as long as you remember to take care of yourself and your allergies. Happy Halloween!

Sara S.

Bringing Food to Restaurants

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One of the realities of living with severe allergies is the limited exposure to many restaurants. Although you can make plans to eat-out by speaking to the appropriate restaurant staff, most restaurants cannot completely guarantee an allergen-free meal. If you are faced with an important event that cannot be missed, or if you are travelling abroad, bringing your own food to a restaurant may be a safer alternative. I personally love to travel and, in some cases, have had to bring my own food to restaurants. Below, I’ll briefly outline my experiences (positive and negative) in doing this.

When I was younger, I always felt awkward or “out of place” when bringing food to restaurants. In some cases, restaurants will not even allow you to bring your own food. I found this to be the case in Europe. I remember going on a guided tour of Budapest with my parents. I knew I had to bring my own food because explaining my allergy would be too difficult given the language barrier. When my parents and I arrived at the restaurant, we were immediately told that I was not allowed to bring “outside food” into the restaurant (which left me feeling awkward and embarrassed). I think my key learning from that experience was flexibility. Although these situations can be difficult, you have to find ways to make it work in a given situation. You can try going to another restaurant, or find a public space where you can feel comfortable eating your own meal.

Although I’ve had some negative experiences, I’ve also had many positive experiences at restaurants. Most restaurants in the United States and Canada understand the implications of food allergies. If they cannot provide a solution, most will try to accommodate you in the best way possible. That being said, more expensive or “prestigious” restaurants may have the “no outside food” policy in place. However, you should typically have no trouble at family restaurants or more casual buffets. In any case, it would be wise to call in advance to make sure that the restaurant that you choose allows outside food.

Further, you need to treat each restaurant excursion on a case-by-case basis. If you have to bring your own food because there is no other alternative, then bring it. Remember, your health and well-being are your first priorities! Never put yourself in a dangerous situation for the sake of convenience.

Saverio M.

Back to School and Allergies

College student backpack

Heading back to school can be a fun and exciting time! Getting to see your friends again, purchasing new school supplies, and meeting your new teachers are just some things to look forward to. On the other hand, going back to school may be overwhelming, especially when having to manage a severe allergy.

I know because I’ve been there…As I enter my final year of undergraduate studies at university, I’ve taken some time to reflect-back upon my elementary and high-school days. I was diagnosed with anaphylaxis back in 2004, at the age of 10. I remember feeling overwhelmed as I contemplated the potential challenges I would face in my future. What will my friends think? Will I ever be able to eat-out? How and when should I notify others about my allergy? For the most part, I’ve been fortunate enough to have supportive friends who understand the implications of severe allergies. Although some may not be as understanding as others, taking a proactive approach in managing your allergies should help alleviate or minimize any problems that you may encounter. Here are some tips that I have found helpful in terms of managing allergies at school!

1. Understand that you are not the only one with allergies at your school: In most cases, you will not be the only student in your school (or class) with anaphylaxis. I remember going through school and there being at least one other student with an allergy (if not anaphylaxis). You are not alone!

2. Bringing-up your allergies at the appropriate time: When making new friendships, it’s often difficult to gauge when the appropriate time to discuss your allergies may be. The appropriate time and place will depend on the individual and the nature of your relationship. In any case, always make sure to notify your friends about your allergy before eating-out at a restaurant. Never feel peer-pressured to go to a restaurant and “risk it.” Take a step back, remember that your health is your most important asset, and tell those around you about your allergy. It would also be wise to show them your medic-alert bracelet and where you store your auto-injector.

3. No trading lunches! When I was in school (particularly elementary school) I remember always being tempted by others to trade lunches or try different foods. Don’t! You don’t know who has handled the food and whether or not there is risk of cross-contamination. Again, never feel ‘peer-pressured’ into trying food either.

4. Seek-out allergen-friendly snacks: Luckily, a lot of positive change has transpired since 2004. Organizations such as Food Allergy Canada have done a fantastic job of spreading awareness about anaphylaxis. As a result, a lot of corporations have taken steps to produce and market allergen-free snacks. Many big-box grocery stores supply peanut-free, nut-free, and gluten-free snacks – some specifically designed for school. Seek these out!

Hopefully, you’ll find some of these suggestions helpful. No matter what age you are, going back to school can be overwhelming. Making a plan beforehand can help alleviate some of your stress moving forward.

Saverio M.

Going to The Dentist with Allergies

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Note: The following advice is simply that: advice. It is not to be substituted for professional advice from your dentist. It is, rather, intended to serve as a general reminder to help you work with your dentist and/or other dental professionals to aid in safe experiences at the dentist.

 

Going to the dentist is an experience most people try to avoid. I know this because I’m a dental student and my patients are never shy to remind me of this. Usually, a dentist will ask you to fill out a health questionnaire before seeing you. This is where you should write down any allergies you have. A few common ones that are important for your dentist to know include (but are not limited to):

  • Antibiotics (e.g. penicillin, sulfonamides). A dentist might prescribe you antibiotics if you have a tooth ache and need a root canal, or if you just had a tooth extracted. If you see them reaching for the prescription pad, don’t be shy to remind them of your allergy.
  • Latex or nitrile. Depending on the dental office, some dentists prefer to use latex gloves, while others prefer nitrile. Latex can also be found in the rubber dam they use while drilling a cavity, at the tip of the drill used for prophylaxis (cleaning or polishing your teeth), at one end of the vial of anesthetic, as well as other places. If the dentist doesn’t ask you if you’re allergic before he/she sits down, feel free to mention it before they put on their gloves.
  • In local anesthesia with a vasopressor (like epinephrine), sulfites are used as a preserving agent. A sulfite allergy is not the same as an allergy to sulfa, which is an antibiotic. It’s also possible (but rare) to be allergic to a class of anesthetics called “esters” (http://www.dentistrytoday.com/pain-management/anesthesia/265). If you think you’re allergic to local anesthesia because of a past bad reaction, get tested by an allergist to make sure it’s a true allergy.
  • Today, most metals used in crowns and prostheses are precious metals and are well tolerated by the body. If you’re sensitive to non-precious metals like copper or nickel, make sure your dentist knows. In terms of fillings, a true allergy to amalgam is quite rare, but it’s still possible to have a localized reaction on the skin that’s in direct contact with the amalgam (silver/metal filling). Discuss your concerns with your dentist.

If you start experiencing the signs of an allergic reaction, bring it to the attention of the dentist immediately. All dentists are trained in emergency first aid and by law are required to stock epinephrine in their emergency kit. As long as you’re clear about your allergies (and brush and floss regularly), going to the dentist should be a relatively “painless” experience.

Talia A.

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